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Full text of "Lincoln the lawyer"

Lincoln the Lawyer 



From 1837 until he went to Washington early 
in 1861, Abraham Lincoln was a practicing 
lawyer. His interest in the law was not 
undivided because he frequently was absorbed 
in politics, but he made a good living for his 
family and became widely recognized as one of 
the ablest pleaders in Illinois. 

Lincoln was 27 years old when he received 
his law license. For a man who had enjoyed 
only a few terms in pioneer schools and had 
worked with his hands throughout his early life, 
the intellectual accomplishment of successfully 
studying for a legal career was noteworthy. 
Four years earlier when he returned from 
serving as a captain in the Black Hawk War, 
Lincoln had "thought of learning the 
black-smith trade— thought of trying to study 
law— rather thought he could not succeed at 
that without a better education." It was two 
years later that he took positive steps toward 
becoming a lawyer. When he was campaigning 
for election to the legislature in 1834, he was 
persuaded to take up the study by Major John 
T. Stuart, another candidate of the Whig Party. 
Here is the way Lincoln himself described his 
law education for a campaign biography written 
many years later: 

"After the election he borrowed books of 
Stuart, took them home with him, and went at 
it in good earnest. He studied with nobody. He 
still mixed in the surveying to pay board and 
clothing bills. When the Legislature met, the 
law books were dropped, but were taken up 




This artist's impression of Lincoln pleading the 
celebrated Armstrong case of 1858 is erroneous in 
showing Lincoln wearing a beard, which he did not 
start to grow until after his election in 1860. Duff 
Armstrong and his widowed mother, sentimentally 
portrayed, are seated at the table, right. 



again at the end of the session." It took two 
years of hard study before he got his license in 
1836, and it was April 15, 1837, when he left 
New Salem to become Stuart's law partner in 
Springfield. In 1841 he became the partner of 
Judge Stephen T. Logan, and in 1844 he 
formed his final partnership with William H. 
Herndon. 



The practice of law in Lincoln's time required 
a great deal of traveling. Although Springfield 
was the state capital, the courts there were in 
session only part of the year. An ambitious 
lawyer had to spend many days "on the 
circuit" traveling to other counties for terms of 



court. The roads were sometimes bad, and 
lawyers had to travel in all kinds of weather. 
But apparently there were many 
compensations. In discussing a law career with 
his son Robert many years later, Lincoln said, 
"If you become a lawyer you will probably 
make more money at it than I ever did, but you 
won't have half the fun." 

The "fun" consisted of the good fellowship 
with other lawyers, ample opportunities for 
trading wit, and the challenge of besting his 
friendly rivals in open court. Almost certainly 
the enjoyment also stemmed from the 
opportunity to indulge in politics at the same 
time. 

Already embarked on a political career before 
he studied law, Lincoln continued to serve in 
the legislature until 1841. He was an active 
campaigner for the Whig presidential candidates 
in 1840 and 1844, and in 1846 he was elected 
to the House of Representatives for a two-year 
term. He did not seek re-election and devoted 
the next five years almost exclusively to his law 
practice. In 1854, the repeal of the Missouri 
Compromise triggered his return to politics, and 
he began the sequence of speeches and 
candidacies which led to the White House. 

By the 1850s, he had become a prominent 
lawyer for the railroads. Perhaps his most 
important case was his defense in a suit testing 
the right to put a bridge over a navigable body 
of water. The Effie Afton, a Mississippi River 



steamer, had run against the pier of the Rock 
Island Bridge and had been destroyed. Lincoln 
ably defended the right to build such bridges, 
and the court's decision removed a serious 
obstacle to the building of transcontinental 
railroads. 

The Effie Afton case was tried in 1857, the 
year before Lincoln, running for the Senate, 
participated in the famous series of debates 
with Stephen A. 
Douglas. In 1858, 
busy as he was 
with politics and 
h i g h - 1 eve I legal 
work, he still had 
time to heed a call 
from out of his 
past. "Duff" 
Armstrong, the son 
of friends from his 
New Salem days, This Photograph of Lincoln 
was taken in Chicago during 
was accused of February, 1857, the year of 

murder, a n d tne Effie Afton case - 
Lincoln offered to help defend him. In this 
case, often used as the basis for stories and 
plays about Lincoln, he discredited the 
prosecution's star witness by proving, with the 
aid of an almanac, that there was insufficient 
moonlight for the witness to have seen what he 
described in great detail. For his efforts, 
Lincoln would not accept a fee from Duff's 
widowed mother. 




On his last afternoon in Springfield before 
entraining for Washington and the presidency, 
Lincoln told his law partner: "Give our clients 
to understand that the election of a President 
makes no change in the firm of Lincoln and 
Herndon. If I live I'm coming back some time, 
and then we'll go right on practising law as if 
nothing had ever happened." 



ON THE COVER: This statuette of Lincoln "The 
Circuit Rider" by Fred M. Torrey is located at 
Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, Illinois. 




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